New York Rangers
2017-18 Regular Season Record: 34-39-9
2018-19 Current Available Cap Space: $ 29,450,556
Contracts Signed: 34
RFAs & UFAs This Summer: 17 (11 RFAs; 6 UFAs)*
No. of 2018 Draft Picks: 10 (numbers 9, 26, 28, 39, 48, 70, 88, 101, 132, and 163 overall)
It was a very tough 2017-18 season for the Rangers, where injuries and underperformance killed any chance of success. The Rangers had holes in their lineup to start the season and things just got worse and worse as time went along. Radical changes were needed, and by February, a rebuild was announced. The blowing up of the team began before the trade deadline, and by the start of the draft tonight, the rebuild is well underway. Last month, Jeff Gorton, the GM, hired Head Coach David Quinn out of Boston University, and set the tone for the coming years. Gorton promptly admitted that he does not know how long this phase will take, taking the pressure off Quinn at the start.
Some rebuilds have taken five years, but five years is an unreasonable length of time to wait for this team to be a contender (particularly since the Vegas Golden Knights came together and made a Stanley Cup appearance within one season of joining the league). And they should not have to—there are too many opportunities and assets that this team has to wait that long. Plus, New York has 10 draft selections in this weekend’s draft (including three in the first round and two in the second) to either pick or use in a trade. This is a “good” draft year, with many assets available, particularly in the first two rounds. Although there is no chance of trading up to obtain the first pick (i.e., Rasmus Dahlin) from Buffalo, every other pick above the Rangers 9th pick is in play. While a generational talent will not be available to the Rangers in this draft, future NHL top six players are available through much of the first round and maybe into the second. A little maneuvering by the Rangers could pick up at least two good NHL players in Dallas over the next two days.
Before we get to who those players should be, let’s see what the NHL roster looks like for next season (if we can). With both Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil getting a look at center and Mika Zibanejad as the number one at the position, there is room for only one to two players in that position. Either Vlad Namestnikov, Kevin Hayes, or Ryan Spooner, (whoever is still with the team by October) can play there. But it is possible that none of those players are Blueshirts by October. All are arbitration-eligible RFAs, and all are likely due a decent raise; Hayes and Namestnikov are due more than a decent raise. But New York has only $29.45 million left in cap space and is in the running for Ilya Kovalchuk; not to mention other UFAs that may be available that the Rangers would like to pursue. The fact that the cap was expected to be a bit more than the $79.5 million was announced yesterday (the range announced in February was $79-$82 million), makes a difference and adds to the rumors swirling that one or two of the Namestnikov, Hayes, Spooner, or even Jimmy Vesey (another arbitration-eligible RFA) could be traded in the coming days.
So, there is uncertainty up the middle. On the right side, Mats Zuccarello is expected to remain, with Jesper Fast and Pavel Buchnevich also on that wing. On the left, Chris Kreider is currently the top player. But Kreider is a mystery; will he be the player who was hitting his stride for the Rangers early in the year, before the blood clot, and then performed extremely well in the World Championships after he recovered? Or will he be the other Kreider, who often disappeared on the ice, over the last several years? At age 27 and going on the last year of his contract, this will be Kreider’s chance to prove that he is a top six player in the NHL and obtain the big money longer-term contract that he is hoping for. It would not surprise me to see him blossom under the tutelage of new Head Coach David Quinn and for Kreider to become the player everyone hoped for when he was drafted by the Rangers in 2009. If that happens and one of Namestnikov, Spooner, Hayes, or Vesey plays on the second line, it could be successful top two line team.
Henrik Lundqvist should still be between the pipes for the next few years, and despite difficult games last season, it was often Hank keeping the team in the hunt for as long as they were. But who will back him up? It is unlikely that Ondrej Pavelec will be back, but also uncertain that Alexandar Georgiev (who appeared in 10 NHL last season) is ready for the backup role full-time. A free-agent pickup may be in order here, with plenty of reasonably priced netminders available on the free-agent market.
It is on defense, that the team needs immediate help. Shattenkirk, Skjei, Pionk, and Staal are the current top four defensemen on the roster, and that just will not good enough to get the job done. Brendan Smith will get another look, but it is not at all certain that he can get the job done. That leaves at least two spots for others. The Rangers would do well to trade for a player that can fill a defensive role and maybe for one free-agent pick-up here too.
Even with the addition of free agents, the Rangers may not be very competitive next season. Things may be looking much brighter for the team starting in the fall of 2020 though, due to the addition of several of prospects. The addition of 2017 draft picks and the recent trade prospects have changed the defensive landscape. 2017 selection Brandon Crawley (an excellent LH defensive blueliner and recently traded for Libor Hajek (LD, good sized two-way defenseman), and Ryan Lindgren (LD, defensive defenseman) make the future very bright in New York for blueliners—from the left.
Not to mention the arrival of Brett Howden (C, one of the prime contributors to Canada’s U20 WJC gold medal), Morgan Barron (C; excellent freshman season at Cornell), and Patrik Virta (C, who played very well in the Liiga last season and has terminated his contract there to move on to a higher-level of play).
But there is no prospect whose arrival is more eagerly awaited than goalie Igor Shestyorkin. Although there is no doubt that the Rangers would love give Lundqvist a chance at the Cup in the next two to three seasons, if that does not happen, the Rangers should still be able to contend for the league’s top prize. As the heir-apparent to Lundqvist, Shestyorkin is excelling in the KHL and his skills should easily transfer to the NHL. In addition, there are five other goaltending prospects in the system, and although their upside is not that of Shestyorkin, one or more may be a legitimate number one should the young Russian not work out.
Yes, the system is generally strong, but there are a few holes, notably right shooting defensemen. So, what should the Rangers be looking for tonight and tomorrow? Definitely, the team should select the best player available with the first pick, and definitely as many right-shooting defensemen as possible after that. Maybe they will get a combination at ninth overall though, the Rangers may get both. RD Noah Dobson fits the team needs and could be the best player available at number nine. About two years away from being NHL-ready, Dobson is a smart, not flashy two-way defender. He works hard, skates well, and has a big frame. The Rangers could not ask for more.
As for the other first-round selections, expect the Rangers to shop the picks, but also know that the team may consider giving the beleaguered RD Ryan Merkley a look. A very talented offensive defenseman, he has some attitude problems that have turned a lot of scouts off to him. However, Merkley’s his talent is undeniable. What to do? There are often players that have issues at draft time–sometimes it works out well for the teams and the players, and sometimes it does not. If Merkley can get it together, he can wind up successful (ala Phil Kessel), but if not, the pick can turn out to be a bust (ala David Fisher). The question is whether or not the Rangers want to take the chance with one of their late first-round picks.